When we think about communication, people often assume that talking, listening and writing are the main modes of communication. This is a huge misconception and an important one to address because there is a whole lot more to communication and we all communicate in different ways.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are celebrated within our society and should also be acknowledged and celebrated within the field of communication.  We think about individuals as being unique and different in many ways including their physical characteristics, beliefs, likes and dislikes, the way in which they think, learn and process information, and so forth. This uniqueness also extends to the way in which people communicate. Everyone is different, as is their communication style. For people with different communication methods and needs, at times, it can be difficult to be understood and have their needs met. In this blog, we will unpack some common questions around diversity in communication and share some tips on how to be an effective communicator with people with different communication needs.

Why do people communicate differently?

Well, to put it simply, each individual has their own needs, strengths, areas for growth, preferences, physical and cognitive skills. These areas impact and influence one’s communication abilities, preferred style and methods of communication.

For example, some individuals use less language and speech than others; others may have stronger skills with their understanding and have difficulty finding the right words to express themselves; or some individuals may find it difficult to produce clear speech sounds resulting in others misunderstanding them. The range of communication needs and skills is vast and specific to each individual.

Secondly, the method or mode of communication we adopt is guided by a number of factors, including preferred mode, communication strengths, motivation and individual needs and wants. It is important to encourage all individuals to be a ‘multimodal communicator’, which simply means that they use multiple ways to communicate with others on a daily basis.  You may not realise it, but you are likely to be a ‘multimodal communicator’ who uses multiple communication methods across your day to communicate with different people, for different purposes and across different settings.

For example, let’s look at the many different ways in which one may engage in the interaction of ordering a coffee:

  • you may have non-verbally greeted the barista with a wave and smile, read a menu or looked at a display cabinet, gestured and pointed to the item that you want, verbally said your order, paid for the item and thanked the barista with a smile.
  • you might have ordered and paid for your item online, thereby using written communication through text, words and visuals.
  • Alternatively, you may used a communication device to request a coffee, paid for the item and thanked the barista without making eye contact or smiling.

It is amazing to think about the multimodal approach that we each adopt, sometimes unconsciously, to have our needs and wants met, and engage in social interactions.  It is important to be a multimodal communicator because it means that we can switch between modalities in order to express ourself and repair breakdowns in communication. A communication breakdown occurs when communication partners have difficulty exchanging meaning and/or interpreting the message. If the communicator and/or communication partner can use another method to express the same message, they can repair the breakdown and continue with their interaction. For example, if someone is speaking another language or has unclear speech sounds, they may use gesture, written language or a drawing to support their message.

For individuals who may have communication difficulties, a disability or additional needs, it can be difficult to switch between communication modes to get a message across, understand a message or repair a misunderstanding in communication. That’s where a communication partner who can tune into the different ways someone may communicate is so helpful.

What are some of the ways in which people communicate?

There are many ways in which people communicate and we usually don’t just adopt one style or method of communication. As we have already discussed, a multimodal communicator has a tool bag of strategies and different ways to communicate, to ensure that they are a competent communicator who can get their message across.

In order to support individuals to be a multimodal communicator, it is important to adopt a total communication approach, which is a holistic way of looking at communication. It is about finding and using a combination of methods to communicate with others to share messages and interactions, without relying on one sole method for communication. We all use a total communication method throughout our day, by adopting different types of communication.

Some of the different types of communication that are commonly used include:

  • Verbal/language based: this includes speech, text and written language, lip reading, braille, sign systems.
  • Non-verbal: this includes gesture, eye contact, body language, proximity, facial expressions, touch
  • Visual: can include real objects, environmental set up, photographs, videos, line drawings, pictures, symbols, text. There are many different types of visual supports and some can be easier to understand than others.

For example, by reading this blog, writing an email, answering the phone, checking a text and waving to someone, you have switched between the above communication modes.

For some individuals who find it difficult to communicate verbally, they may use an alternative mode, which is called Alternative and Augmentative communication (AAC). AAC includes all forms communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we use gestures, written text, emoji’s, symbols, pictures and so forth. There are many different types of AAC and these may be visual and/or language based.

AAC can be mainly categorised into aided or unaided, and low tech or high-tech:

  • Aided AAC requires some type of physical support, e.g. real objects, visuals, a communication board with photos/words, a switch, an iPad.
  • Unaided AAC requires no physical aids, e.g. sign language, natural gesture.
  • Low tech AAC is where the communication support has no technology, e.g. Choice boards, swing tags, gesture, pen and paper.
  • High tech AAC is where the communication support is technological, e.g. iPad, tablet, voice output communication system.

What does it mean to be an effective communicator?

So putting all this together, you might be wondering what it means for you. Well, ideally, it is important to be an effective communicator AND communication partner!

An effective communication partner is one who modifies and adjusts their communication style or method to suit the interaction and their partner, so that the interaction is successful and positive for everyone involved. This may involve adjusting your communication and adopting a different approach so that all parties are able to understand one another, express themselves and repair breakdowns in communication. It is important to recognise and celebrate that communication is a two-way street and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ method. As Speech Pathologists, we are trained and experienced in the different ways people communicate and are regularly adapting our methods of communication to be the best communication partners we can be.

Tips for being an effective communicator

Some tips on how to adapt your communication to best support and interact effectively with someone who may have different communication needs and preferences include:

  • When interacting with someone, don’t only listen to what they say. Observe their body language, gestures, facial expressions and any form of communication which supports or replaces their verbal language.
  • Simplify your language so that it reflects your communication partner’s preferred mode of communication and level of understanding.
  • Always talk to an individual directly, rather than talk through their carer or family member. Direct greetings, questions and responses directly to the individual you are interacting with.
  • When interacting with someone with a communication difficulty, it can often be difficult to understand everything that they have said. When the person has finished communicating, check that you have correctly understood their message.
  • Talk to a person with your typical voice volume, tone of voice and body language. If someone has not understood what you are communicating, try to find out how it would be easiest for this individual to understand you.
  • Allow time for the individual to communicate their message. Be respectful of their mode of communication, not rushing or finishing their sentences.
  • It is best to be face to face with the individual and at their level.
  • Make sure you are focusing on what the person is saying and they are focused on you. Try to minimise any background noise or distractions.
  • Encourage independence in communication. Allow the individual to express their own ideas, wants and comments in conversation or everyday life situations.
  • Encourage and use play to facilitate communication with kids!

Temple Grandin, highly regarded spokesperson for autism, once said “I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out”. To be an effective communication partner it is vital to be continually open to the different ways people communicate.

Get in touch

Delna Pryde

Speech Pathology Lead, Beam Health

Vivien Edwards

Speech Pathologist, Beam Health

Rebecca Gillogly

Speech Pathologist, Beam Health

Sharon Boundy

Speech Pathologist, Beam Health

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